How to Cure the Hiccups
by Joellen Nicholson
Around the age of seven I began to twitch my body and blink my eyes. It wouldn’t be until 13 years later that these “tics” would be diagnosed. For most of my life I had no idea what was wrong with me. I spent a great amount of energy trying to hide my tics. Second grade is when I first remember blinking my eyes repetitively. It seemed as if out of the blue this started happening; I don’t recollect any definite catalyst. Throughout that year my eye twitching became more intense. My parents took me to an optometrist. The doctors had no answer; I had 20/20 vision. So I continued through my childhood blinking my eyes uncontrollably.
As a child, what mattered most to me was to be “normal.”. My parents would tell me to “control my blinking.” It was hard to explain to them that I couldn’t. I didn’t even understand that my tics were involuntary. The more I held back, the more intense they became. As a young child, I was self-conscious and embarrassed about my every move. Starting in junior and senior high school, my tics began to change. I continued to blink my eyes, along with repetitively trying to catch my breath. Again, my parents and I were puzzled about what was wrong. So my parents took me to the doctors. Everything about me appeared normal; my health was perfect. I played a sport every season and danced everyday. I never had endurance problems. In fact I excelled in these activities. The only possibility in the doctor’s mind was sports-induced asthma. So she prescribed for me an inhaler for asthma thinking it might help. But it didn’t.
I continued throughout high school with mild tics. I was aware of them at every moment. Just like every other teenager I was self-conscious. My tics only helped to exacerbate my negative and insecure feelings about myself. Every time I felt a tic coming on I would desperately try to stop them. I didn’t want my classmates to know there was anything wrong with me. I feared they would mock me. It was mission to hide my odd movements from everyone.
By the time I entered my freshman year at Michigan State, my tics had increased in type and frequency. I no longer blinked my eyes. I now rolled my left shoulder, clenched my hamstring and gluteus muscles, and stretched repetitively to my right side. My anxiety about my tics only increased once I entered college. I was in a whole new environment trying to make new friends. Constantly, I thought about what these friends thought of me. I was afraid of being judged for something I couldn’t control or explain.
On a weekend visit home my freshman year, my parents and I were watching Dateline NBC. There was a story about children with movement disorders. I was stunned. Their symptoms were similar to mine, the only variations being the extremity of their tics. Like myself, some had mild cases, which didn’t prohibit them from leading a normal life. Their only discomfort was the strain in trying to mentally control their movements and mild muscle tension. Others had extreme cases where they had OCD, ADD, and even shouted obscenities.
After seeing that program we made an appointment to see a neurologist. We explained to him how my tics had progressed over the years. He listened and asked questions. Finally, he diagnosed me with Tourette Syndrome. He cleared up the misunderstanding that only people who shouted randomly in public had TS. He explained that TS has different ranges of severity and that I happened to have a case that was milder in comparison to others. Although it was a relief to finally have an answer, I wanted to know when the tics would go away. I was not happy to hear the answer. My doctor said they usually lessen with age (although mine had increased) and that there was no cure. The best he could offer was medication to lessen the tics. I decided to try medication. I was up for anything that would help hide my tics.
Besides trying to hide my tics, I was also determined not to speak about my TS to anyone. The only people who knew were my family and my two college roommates. I figured the fewer people who knew, the less real it would be. I thought that I could “wish” it away. The best scapegoat I found was to blame my tics on other possibilities. Many people had often asked if I had the hiccups after I would tic. The first time someone asked me, I was taken aback and became very embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say. Then I realized that answering “yes” was the easiest and safest answer. For years, I had the “hiccups.”
After graduating from Michigan State, I moved to New York City. My tics started becoming even more intense. I had stopped taking my medicine because it was making me too drowsy. Instead I spent countless hours concentrating on suppressing my tics. After a year of living in New York, trying to deal with my tics without any support became too mentally and physically draining. I knew I needed to find another way. Rather than controlling them on my own, I decided to begin openly discussing it with my family and friends.
The first people I opened up to were my roommate, my boss, and a colleague. For so long, I had feared that people would judge my TS. I didn’t want people to think that I was incompetent or stupid. I was wrong. They were very understanding and open about discussing my TS. They even confessed to thinking that TS was only people who shouted obscenities. They did not judge me. Instead they cared.
It has now been four years since I accepted that I had TS and started to be open about my disorder. Even though I am now more open and willing to discuss it, I still find it is a love - hate relationship. Many days I can brush off and ignore my tics. However, I do have bad days where I hate my tics, wish them away, and ask why me? All of my insecurities and frustrations come flooding out when I feel people looking at me, and when they ask what is wrong. It takes all my energy to ignore them or to be polite in educating them on TS.
When I think about my TS I realize that it is part of who I am. It is a “personality” of mine that has been around for over 20 years. Although I imagine what it would be like not having tics, if I didn’t have TS then I may not be the same woman I am today. I have a wonderful life with supportive and loving family and friends, a successful career, I live in NEW YORK CITY!, and I can conquer any of my dreams. My tics have helped shape the person I am, so why would I want to change that?